Just as education can equalize or divide countries and people, information and communication technologies can go in any direction. At the moment, these technologies, although at times surprisingly advanced in some developing countries, are very unevenly distributed. The resulting “digital divide” is of great concern.
One consequence of the investment binge of recent years is an incredible overcapacity in the world’s communications system. If the world’s 6 billion people spoke nonstop on the phone over the next year, their words could be transmitted in a few hours over currently available bandwidth, the capacity that connects homes and offices with each other and with data providers in the world. all the world.
However, some 2 billion people have never made a phone call. Cities like Manhattan and Tokyo have more phone lines than all of sub-Saharan Africa. Cell phone networks cover only 20 percent of the earth, mostly in rich countries. The telephone density (telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) is 50 to 60 in rich countries, but less than two in poorer developing countries. Even among developing countries, the distribution of telecommunications is skewed: in 1999, ten large developing countries accounted for 80 percent of foreign investment in the sector. Within countries, there are equally wide disparities: in Nepal, urban households are 100 times more likely to have telephones than rural households.
Information technology is distributed even more unevenly.Era of Internet traffic between the United States and Europe is 100 times that of Africa, and thirty times that of Latin America. About 10 percent of the world’s population understands English, the language of 75 percent of all websites. Rich countries have 95% of all Internet hosts, Africa only 0.25%. This has something to do with low phone density: with fewer than five phones per 100, it is almost impossible for a country to jump to would-be Internet connectivity across the country.
Why should we care about this? Because these technologies offer enormous leapfrogging possibilities for developing countries, in so many areas that it has become difficult to imagine a country developing and reducing its poverty levels without them:
Reduction of insulation. Cell phone in Bangladesh shows how a single cell phone per village can become a real business and life saver. In the Andes, satellites that provide telephony in rural areas drastically lower communication costs compared to the slow postal system.
Education. New technologies enable teacher training and the creation of networks that increase the quality of basic education. Children learn basic computer skills through trial and error through “computers on the wall” in slums of India. Business schools reach hundreds of remote locations through interactive distance education in South Africa.
Electronic government. This innovative application is spreading rapidly and shows great promise for improving services to people and reducing opacity, bureaucratic problems, errors and fraud. In Mauritania, an improved budget management system paid for itself within a few months. The government system of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is being computerized, with massive gains in efficiency and transparency.
Medicine. Information technology applications for health cover a wide range: patient information, nurse training, hygiene instructions, and even, in some cases, remote diagnostics. Data collected by remote sensing along 50,000 kilometers of African rivers has helped control river blindness.
Environmental management and ecologically balanced agriculture. Internet-based networks, satellite sensing, and best practice exchanges can bring rapid progress in both of these areas.
Business connectivity. Even small businesses in the developing world can connect to their markets and their larger partners in rich countries. Recall the Moroccan garment manufacturer and the Ethiopian goat producer in Chapters 4 and 5.
I could go on and on. In short, new technologies have become one of the most powerful ways to accelerate development and reduce poverty in ways that no one could have thought of ten years ago. But from a global point of view, it’s also a matter of making sure these technologies narrow the wealth and income gap, rather than allowing their currently highly uneven distribution to degenerate into what Berkeley professor Manuel Castells calls “ technological apartheid ”. Given the speed of the The diffusion of new technologies in rich countries is a global problem of some urgency. There are many things to catch up on.
And it is not a problem that requires expensive solutions. Tackling it doesn’t mean showering poor countries with donated phones and PCs. It means helping them become smart and connected users of new technologies. The types of global measures to consider are the following:
Help more than 100 developing countries rapidly develop the policies that will facilitate their transformation into knowledge-based societies in all dimensions, from education to information infrastructure, research and innovation.
Generalize the Chilean technique of linking private sector investment in expanded telecommunications to coverage of remote areas, perhaps providing a global subsidy fund for that purpose.
Tilt aid programs much more toward basic connectivity, including funding for community communication centers in small towns and villages, and toward higher computer density and literacy levels.
Provide a global capacity for sharing best practices across the range of promising applications of new technologies in developing country settings.
Establish global North-South business incubation and mentoring systems that can work quickly. This is important because experience in Brazil and elsewhere shows that beyond connectivity and access to the Internet, for countries to take off they need to develop a complete network of small businesses, Internet service providers and producers of local content.
Promote the use of new technologies in other areas of global problems, such as infectious diseases, education for all and prevention of natural disasters.
It could be argued that this still largely unfulfilled agenda, part of which was discussed at the Okinawa and Genoa G7 summits in 2000 and 2001, does not have the same level of global urgency as other issues on the Top Twenty. That would be a bad read. Like many problems in the second category, it is a powerful “underlying” problem, the solution of which makes it easy to tackle other problems.